A survey of sex workers by the Delhi Commission for Women has thrown up some interesting data on trafficking and HIV that could make the government’s policies more effective. But since the data suggests that the government’s current approach is wrong, will anyone want to learn the lessons it teaches, asks Manjima Bhattacharjya
“Over the years, we have become ‘commercial sex workers’ from ‘common prostitutes’. Debates are held about us and we are discussed in documents, covenants and declarations. The problem, however, is that when we try to inform the arguments, our stories are disbelieved and we are treated as if we cannot comprehend our own lives. Thus we are romanticised, victimised, or worse. And our reality gets buried and distorted.”
-- Durga Pujari, an activist with Veshya Anyay Mukabla Parishad (VAMP)
As Durga Pujari poignantly points out, the growing body of research and documentation on sex workers seldom focuses on their immediate realities, but tends rather to cater to specific agendas instead: sometimes highlighting the ‘fallen woman’ angle, sometimes examining HIV prevalence, condom usage, trafficking, or the plight of sex workers’ children. Questions about where they come from, what their religious and caste composition is, whether they are BPL or APL, or whether they have voter identity cards -- questions that are taken for granted when researchers look at, say, brick layers or agricultural workers -- get easily relegated to the background.
A recent study by the Delhi Commission for Women (DCW) did pause to look at some of these areas. Claiming to be the ‘first study of its kind’ and aimed at helping the DCW evolve a more effective anti-trafficking and HIV programme, it surveyed 400 sex workers in Delhi’s red light area, GB Road, as well as those in the government remand home Nirmal Chhaya, to generate some insightful data on the status and condition of sex workers there.
The statistics that emerged showed that almost all the women surveyed were migrants from outside Delhi, a significant portion being from Andhra Pradesh. All of them had come to ‘escape poverty’. Some 41% stated that they entered sex work out of poverty, while 39% entered of their own will. More than 85% had proof of identity, such as a ration card, voter I-card or passport. While about 60% of them had children, only 40% of the children went to school.
The study also found that a large part of the women’s income goes to a third party -- a kotha malkin, or a pimp. As for income, 72.5% earn between Rs 3,000 and Rs 5,000 a month while about 20% earn over Rs 5,000.
Disturbing trends were noted with respect to health and sexual behaviour. Only 50% use condoms, while less than 50% even know about STDs although about 46% are infected with sexually transmitted diseases. High levels of substance abuse were reported, and over half the women complained of police harassment and violence.
At the report’s release, state representatives regretted being unable to sufficiently take much action to protect the women or help address their health issues as ‘the law did not recognise their profession’, and stated that women in this occupation could only be helped once in custody in government homes.
To begin with, these statistics offer us a better idea of who the women at GB Road really are -- in fact it becomes evident that sex workers are really no different from migrant construction workers or domestic workers or the thousands of migrants who come to the city every day to escape poverty and end up doing dangerous, dirty, dismally paid, often illegal work in the informal sector.
The difference lies in their specific and magnified vulnerability to HIV and STDs, their ambiguous and violent relationship with the law and police, the damaging effects of social stigma and exclusion, and a range of vulnerabilities associated with being in an occupation that is partially underground. The fact that a large part of their income goes to the malkin, or the shockingly low levels of condom use (despite ‘well supplied’ condom vending machines being placed in many houses by the Delhi State AIDS Control Society, according to the state social welfare minister) illustrates that the women do not have control over their lives, and that they succumb to the pressures of pimps, brothel owners or clients.
What can we learn from the study that could help make anti-trafficking and HIV policies of the Delhi government more effective and relevant?
Ironically, the data from the study strongly suggests that the current approach -- raiding brothels (forcibly), rescuing women in them and putting them in government remand homes, on the one hand, to address ‘trafficking’, and putting up the odd condom vending machine in the area and doing random health checks with a mobile van, on the other, to address HIV and sexual health needs -- is grossly inadequate and misplaced.
Trafficking is not prostitution
Let us begin with the first approach -- rescue, rehabilitation and repatriation. Perhaps the most significant finding that should be reiterated is that almost 40% claim to have entered sex work of their own volition, whatever the circumstances of that choice may have been. This is a crucial finding because it upsets the very first premise on which much of our anti-trafficking policies operate: that women in prostitution have necessarily been trafficked into it, or that trafficking and sex work/prostitution are the same thing. By the DCW’s own admission this time, this is not true. Women in red light areas are a mix of those who have indeed been trafficked and coerced into prostitution, and those who have not, who have come on their own, for whom it has become a means of livelihood and for whom being ‘rescued’ and placed in a remand home is akin to being imprisoned, in violation of their human rights. It is time to accept this reality and reflect it in our policies and laws -- not all women in prostitution have been trafficked, and many do not want to be ‘rescued’. Different approaches are required for the different groups.
Secondly, it brings into question the implicit assumption that somehow poverty is a better alternative to sex work. That the women were better off ‘back home’, or that within Delhi sex workers in GB Road have it worse than women in clusters or resettlement colonies like Bawana. If women came into prostitution to escape poverty, the logic of rescue and repatriation only sends them right back to the poverty from which they were escaping. And from which, without fail, they will escape again to return to similar situations in the city. In fact, this is one of the recurring problems that ‘rescuers’ bemoan: how women invariably find their way back to the brothels once they are released from a government home or sent back to their state.
In fact, the study reports that almost three-fourths of the women earn between Rs 3,000 and Rs 5,000; a fifth earn more than Rs 5,000. This is significantly higher than the wages that migrant women in Delhi living in slums like Mongolpuri, Okhla or Dakshinpuri earn from home-based work, factory work, beading or zari work. Economist Jayati Ghosh details these earnings and finds that most migrant women doing informal work do not make more than Rs 25 a day. Women in construction work make an average of about Rs 60 a day, while a domestic worker can make up to Rs 100 a day.
This is not to say that sex work is a better means of livelihood than other forms of informal work, but to place sex work in the larger basket of choices or livelihood options that women migrating to the city to escape poverty have. And to recognise that prostitution has also become a labour and livelihood option. Without a doubt, it has its special risks and vulnerabilities in terms of costs to life, to social identity and to health, but without looking at it in the larger context of poor women migrating in search of livelihoods it is not possible to get a relative perspective and to acknowledge money as a motivation for entering prostitution.
The entire logic of the rescue and repatriation approach to trafficking is therefore defeated by data from the DCW study. This is the first lesson to be learnt.
Next, let us look at what the study indicates about approaches to HIV prevention in the state. How is it that in the capital city, Delhi, with such a high level of exposure to the media, NGOs and state projects, less than half the women do not even know about STDs? The fact that only around 50% reported condom use brings into question ongoing programmes in the area. What are the gaps? What is it that is missing in the case of Delhi that is preventing the kind of results that have been shown in HIV prevention in, for example, the Sonagachi project in Kolkata or in Sangli, Maharashtra, where sex workers supported by SANGRAM have formed the VAMP collective?
In Kolkata’s red light area, Sonagachi, between 1992 and 1995, condom use among sex workers rose from 27% to 82%. By 2001 it was 86%. HIV prevalence among sex workers in the area fell from 11% in 2001 to less than 4% by 2004. In Sangli, the district in Maharashtra with the highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS, 350,000 condoms are distributed to 5,000 sex workers every month thanks to the programmes of the SANGRAM-supported VAMP collective of sex workers.
Dr S Jana who initiated the Sonagachi project has said in many forums that only information (about HIV) and technology (condoms) will not enable sex workers to prevent HIV. What is needed is empowerment, or the ability of women to take control of their own actions and over their own lives. Organising sex workers into collectives and promoting a self-regulatory, peer-educated approach has been documented as one of the ‘best practices’ in addressing issues of both trafficking and sexual health and HIV.
Women’s activists have found in the past that, in the specific case of Delhi, regressive policies and moralistic approaches coupled with complicated local politics have prevented the mobilisation of sex workers into a collective. While there are a number of disparate NGOs working in the area, the clout of old (and old-fashioned) social workers with political backing has thwarted any resistance. Crucially, the ideology behind most of these initiatives is not informed by a feminist understanding and doesn’t place empowerment of sex workers at their centre.
State initiatives like those of the Delhi State AIDS Control Organisation (DSACO) have also been hampered by bureaucracy. For example, in 2002, DSACO was taken to court for asking for utilisation certificates in exchange for supplying condoms. The Delhi High Court directed it to resume supply in the red light area without such clauses.Two years later, it was again in the news when the Comptroller and Auditor General tabled a report in the Delhi Assembly criticising the organisation’s inability to meet targets as well as its way of functioning. The DCW and state representatives need to critically evaluate these areas.
While the statistics from the DCW study do not really say anything different from what women sex workers, women’s rights groups and AIDS health activists have been saying over the last decade, the fact that these have been generated by a government body like the Delhi Commission for Women means that they are likely to be taken more seriously, and could have real consequences in terms of a review of existing approaches -- depending, of course, on which lessons they choose to learn.
However, the confusion around whether sex workers are ‘legal’ or ‘illegal’ continues to be an obstacle in addressing their rights. The law too is ambiguous about this, and while prostitution is not stated to be illegal (only trafficking and soliciting in a public place is), this confusion is conveniently used by state representatives to justify their inability to address the needs of sex workers.
The data from the study reveals that 85% of sex workers surveyed in GB Road have some sort of identity card. Regardless of where and how these documents have come from (again, the focus somehow tends to be on suspecting the validity of these documents), this shows us that the women are recognised citizens of the country. Regardless of the confusion surrounding the legitimacy of their occupation, their status as citizens with rights cannot be challenged.
Sex workers need to be looked at from the labour and welfare point of view -- they are women, often single mothers, heads of households, engaged in a vulnerable form of labour with special healthcare needs which have ramifications for the nation as a whole. Looked at this way, the question of legality cannot be an obstacle in the path of working for their rights.
(Manjima Bhattacharjya is a sociologist and activist based in Mumbai. She did her PhD from the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, on globalisation, women and work, and currently writes for various publications on socio-political issues. She has been active in the Indian women’s movement for the last 10 years)
Reference1 ‘The Silence Around Sex Work’ by Syeda Hameed. See http://www.boloji.com/wfs5/wfs505.htm
2 ‘Grim Reality: A Survey of Sex Workers’ by Abantika Ghosh, in The Times of India, July 21, 2008. See http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/Cities/Grim_reality_
3 See latest issue of Infochange Agenda on migration, http://infochangeindia.org/Agenda/On-the-move/
4 DCW claims on its website to have rescued 261 girls from kothas in GB Road over the ‘reporting period’.
5 See ‘Swept Off the Map: Surviving Eviction and Resettlement in Delhi’ by Kalyani Menon-Sen and Gautam Bhan (Yoda Press, 2008, New Delhi)
6 ‘The Crisis of Home-Based Work’ by Jayati Ghosh. See http://www.macroscan.org/cur/may08/cur1
7 ‘Labouring brick by brick: A study of construction workers’, SEWA Ahmedabad, 2000. See www.sewaresearch.org/pdf/researches/labouring_brick_by_brick.pdf
8 See www.durbar.org. The Sonagachi project started out as an STD HIV prevention programme and snowballed into a collective of 65,000 sex workers in West Bengal
9 See www.sangram.org
10 Violence against sex workers and HIV prevention, World Health Organisation, Information Bulletin No 3, 2005. See http://www.who.int/gender/documents/sexworkers.pdf
InfoChange News & Features, August 2008